Unseld, Wes 1946–
Wes Unseld 1946–
During his 13 years of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Wes Unseld was among the game’s dominant centers. He was known for his tremendous physical strength, willpower, guts, quickness, and great rebounding. Unseld was a rock-solid, true leader, and when a second superstar—Elvin Hayes—was added to the mix, the Baltimore (later Washington) Bullets became a powerhouse. After spending his entire playing career on the Bullets, he went on to work in the front office as a team executive. As Sports Illustrated quoted Unseld from 1987, when he was about to assume the coaching position: “I’m a Bullet. I’ve always been a Bullet, and I always will be.” (That assertion eventually proved false—though only on a technicality—when the team was renamed the Wizards in 1995.)
On the court Unseld was unquestionably a fierce competitor, but off-court he has always been known for his easy-going, compassionate, and generous ways. People describe him as a great human being and an extremely kind soul. Among Unseld’s many direct contributions to his community, he has worked and contributed intensively to help his wife, Connie, establish an alternative school designed to prevent children from falling into destructive patterns.
Unseld was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1946. His father, Charles Unseld, worked two jobs as a construction worker and an oilman. He had been a prize-fighter and played ball with the Indianapolis Clowns—an earlier version of the Harlem Globe-trotters. Wes was one of nine children, including two who were adopted.
Charles and his wife Cornelia instilled a powerful sense of values in their children. As Unseld is quoted on the Wizards website, “Education was the epitome to my parents. They didn’t talk about getting straight A’s, but you always got straight A’s in behavior. My father said, ‘You can be the dumbest person in the world but at least you can be good.’”
In fact, Unseld was a straight-A type academically, making the dean’s list as handily as he attained All-America status. His wife, Connie, said his mind made a big impression on her when they met at college. As she recounts on the Wizards website, “He had a wealth of knowledge. I said to myself, This guy is a genius. I’m
Born Westley Unseld on March 14, 1946, in Louis ville, KY; son of Charles and Cornelia Unsaid; married Connie Unseld; two children: Kimberly, Westley Jr. Education: University of Louisville.
Career: Basketball administrator, former basketball player. Baltimore Bullets, basketball player, 1968-73; Capital Bullets, basketball player, 1973-74; Washington Bullets, basketball player, 1974-81, vice president, 1981-96, head coach, 1987-94; Washington Bullets and Washington Sports and Entertainment, executive vice president/general manager, 1996-.
Member: Head of Capital Center Charities; volunteer at Karnan Hospital; board of trustees, Mt St Mary’s College.
Awards: All American at University of Louisville; Rookie-of-the-Year; League’s Most Valuable Player; NBA All-Star game pick—five years; MVP of the 197S NBA championship series; first recipient, Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
Addresses: Office —Executive Vice President/General Manager, Washington Wizards, OneHarry S. Truman Dr. Capitol Centre, Landover MD 20785-4798.
going to hang onto him.’”
After leading his Seneca High School to two state championships, Unseld opted to attend the integrated University of Louisville, rather than become the first African American basketball player at the University of Kentucky. He had good reason. Speaking in the New York Times, Pat Riley—who was a sophomore at the Lexington campus when Wes was being recruited—said “[Race] wasn’t a factor with the players, at least not that I knew. But it was a big deal for others. I know Wes got death threats.”
Unseld’s style of play was labor-intensive and thoroughly team-oriented. He was one of the hardest-working men in the game, muscling in under the boards against centers who all towered above his 6’6” frame. But what Unseld gave up in comparative height, the 235-pounder made up for in width and determination. Built like a heavyweight boxer, sheer physical force was a central element of his style. Unseld had an excellent college career, and he was seen as among the two or three best college-level hoopsters. As a college varsity player, he averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game and was elected All-American in his 1967-1968 senior season. Unseld was chosen second overall in the 1968 draft by Baltimore; the first slot had been filled by Elvin Hayes, who was snagged by San Diego.
With Unseld at the helm, the Bullets immediately reversed course, jumping from sixth place the year before to first place in the division in Unseld’s rookie season. With an average of 13.2 points and 18.2 rebounds, Unseld won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. The only other NBA player to attain that distinction is Wilt Chamberlain. Though Unseld played superbly in the playoffs, the New York Knicks swept the Bullets in four. In The Sporting News, Unseld described the exhilaration he experienced that first season: “One of my fondest memories was that first team. I think it was the most exciting team in the history of basketball. We never knew if we were going to win by 50 or lose by 50, but it was always exciting.”
Unseld had another excellent season his second year, and the Bullets placed a respectable third in the division. While his scoring was solid and his rebounding outstanding, the stats do not begin to reveal his value to the team. Unseld was more than the playmaker; he was a force of nature, who made life very difficult for the team’s opponents.
“I know that night in and night out the guy I play against will have more physical ability,”’ he told the Washington Post. “But I feel like if I go out against a guy and play him 40 or 48 minutes a game or whatever, toe to toe, head to head, he is going to get tired or beat up or bored for two or three minutes. That will be enough to make sure he doesn’t win the game for his team.” In Sports Illustrated, former Chicago coach Doug Collins said that “I don’t know of anybody who ever set a meaner screen or who was more vicious under the boards than Wes.”
The NBA reorganized before the 1970-71 season, and the Bullets proceeded to win five consecutive titles in the Central Division. In 1971, the Bullets made it to the NBA finals for the first time, where they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks. Although they captured their division again the following year, the Bullets had a relatively weak season.
Unseld’s arrival had transformed the Bullets into winners. However, a single player, even a great one, cannot carry a club all the way. By 1972, Coach Gene Shue believed he needed one more top-rung player to round out the picture. Fate decreed that the perfect candidate was suddenly available—Elvin Hayes, who had been having a frustrating, conflict-heavy, and unhappy career with the San Diego Rockets.
As veteran sportswriter Merv Harris wrote in his 1975 book, The Lonely Heroes, “With Unseld, the Bullets were consistent winners for the first time. But they were not good enough, Shue concluded, to become world champions. Something more would be needed, and he’d concluded Hayes could be that more.”
Shue’s move to trade forward Jack Marin for Hayes was considered controversial, because of the potential for competition within the team. Unseld and Hayes had come up at the same time, were often compared and contrasted with each other, and had divergent personalities, causing some to fear an ugly rivalry could take shape. But Shue believed the opposite—that the two superstars would complement each other in personality as well as on the court. He was right: Hayes turned out to be the “missing ingredient,” and the Unseld-Hayes combo proved to be one of the deadliest duos in the league. Harris wrote: “By December 1972, Shue’s belief that Hayes and Unseld might work well together had proven more than justified. There were no eruptions of ego or conflicting ambitions…. With Hayes, Baltimore became one of the NBA’s elite teams.”
Though “only” six-foot-six, Unseld was among the game’s finest defensive rebounders. He was known for his ability to fire off a pinpoint pass to one of his guards while he was still in mid-air, making the Bullets an extremely dangerous fast break team. Quoted in the 1973 book, On Court with the Superstars of the NBA, Unseld said that “People around the NBA like to say that the Baltimore Bullets play on a 50-foot court. I smile when I hear or read that, because it’s proof I’m doing what I do best to help make us a contender.”
But working the defensive boards can be a thankless job. “Some nights it’s hard to decide whether it’s a blessing or a frustration to be on a team working the fast break like we do. I get sometimes so I feel I’m spending all night running up and down the floor… only to find that Archie Clark or Elvin Hayes or Phil Chenier has already taken a shot and that the ball is already dropping through the net…. It’s like commuting to an office every morning, running to catch the train and always getting to the depot just as it chugs down the track without you. A guy’s got to be a little psycho to do this over and over again for 48 minutes a night—and also dedicated to doing a job. Fortunately, I’m both.”
The team moved to Washington before the 1973-74 season, and K.C. Jones became its head coach. That year Unseld missed 26 games due to knee surgery. In fact, he had always been playing with near-constant pain from an arthritic condition. But Hayes had a terrific season, which helped compensate for Unseld’s diminished effectiveness. And in 1974-75, Unseld was back in full force. The Bullets again made the NBA finals, and were swept again—this time by the underdog Golden State Warriors. It was not until the 1977-78 season that the Bullets got the gold, quelling the Seattle SuperSonics in a hard-fought seven-game series. Unseld won the finals MVP award. As he later confided to the Sporting Ne ws, “I dreamed for ten years how I’d celebrate a world championship. Then when it happened, I was so tired [that] I went back to the hotel and went to bed.”
Unseld played a few more seasons before deciding to retire as a player in 1981. After three leg operations, the relentless pain he suffered was too high a price. Unseld had toughed it out for years, not even letting his wife know what he endured. At Unseld’s retirement dinner, owner Abe Pollin paid this tribute: “In my opinion, Wes has been the heart and soul of this basketball team since the first day he stepped onto the court…. He has truly been a credit to the game of basketball. I’ve never met a finer human being in my life. I’ve never known anyone to say a bad word about him.”’
By the end of his career, Unseld was the all-time team leader in games played (984), minutes played (35,832), rebounds (13,769), and assists (3, 822). He was third in total points with 10,624, fifth in blocked shots, fourth in steals for the team, and sixth in rebounding for the entire NBA. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988, and was chosen as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time.
Unseld assumed an executive position for the Bullets in 1981, maintaining a central role in the organization from that day forward. In the 1987-88 season, Pollin asked Unseld to become head coach. At first, Unseld helped swing the team back in a winning direction, but in subsequent years the Bullets faltered badly. Some analysts attributed the weakness to the player roster, while others believe Unseld bore much of the blame. He decided to step down as coach after the 1993-94 season. According to the NBA website, Unseld said to USA Today that “I’m not going to say this is easy, but I did the best I could.”
Unseld stayed on with the team as executive vice president and general manager. In 1991 he defined his perspective on the team and its players: “A Bullet is a person who, once he steps on the court, is willing to do all he can to help that team be a winner. When he steps off the court, the same thing applies. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve helped fashion what a Bullet really is. I take a lot of pride in that. If I get guys who don’t take a lot of pride in being a Bullet, we’ve either got to have a meeting of the minds or he has to leave.”
Harris, Merv, The Lonely Heroes—Professional Basketball’s Great Centers, The Viking Press, 1975.
On Court with the Superstars of the NBA, edited by Merv Harris, The Viking Press, 1973.
New York Times, December 21, 1994, p. B17; November 12, 1995, p. 1, Sunday sports section.
Sports Illustrated, November 9, 1987, p. 46; March 28, 1988, p. 44; December 16, 1991, p. 135.
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